Although Leicester and Harlequins contributed significantly to a pair of intense, exciting semis, there is little doubt that the cream has risen to the top of the Aviva Premiership. In terms of sheer consistency over an arduous nine-month campaign, Saracens and Northampton are worthy finalists. They deserve a chance to slug it out at Twickenham to determine the champions elect from an absorbing season.
There will be some intriguing needle – from post-match singing to Chris Ashton’s transfer, there have been a few arguments down the years – and a titanic tussle lies in wait to determine the last man standing. But where will it be decided? Here are five areas.
This is a starkly contrasting tale. The past week must have stung for Saracens, both emotionally and physically. Defeat to Toulon in Saturday’s Heineken Cup final was characterised by the Top 14 side’s superior muscle. That is tough to take for any professional outfit, let alone one as rugged and macho as Saracens. Pictures of a distraught Billy Vunipola slumped in the Millennium Stadium changing room spoke volumes – Mark McCall’s men were heartbroken. It won’t have been easy to dispel such deep-seated disappointment, though the prospect of handing outstanding captain Steve Borthwick a send-off to remember should serve as inspiration.
Northampton enjoyed a far happier trip to Cardiff, defying a sluggish first half to overturn Bath and clinch the Amlin Challenge Cup. Following their phenomenal comeback that beat Tigers, it was the second time in seven days that a resurgent Saints stormed over the finishing line. Those sorts of performances – not to mention the glint of silverware – inject a sense of invincibility. Northampton’s motto last season was “Why not us?” This time round, it should be “Why anyone else?”
George Ford gave a 39-minute kicking clinic at the Arms Park on Friday evening, pinning corners and dissecting posts with aplomb in greasy conditions. Then on the stroke of half-time, he dragged a penalty to the left. It foreshadowed two more misses in a strangely panicky second period from the prodigiously talented 21 year-old. All the while, Stephen Myler plodded on.
Points were calmly accrued from the tee and Northampton’s attack was directed without fuss. All of a sudden, the game was won. It felt neatly emblematic of Myler’s Test prospects – he has gone under the radar while punters have fawned over Danny Cipriani and other more eye-catching candidates. A quiet, classy, crucial cog in Jim Mallinder’s machine, the Northampton number ten has the temperament to deliver when the title is on the line.
Then again, so does Owen Farrell. By far the most incisive Saracen during Saturday’s loss to Toulon, he is improving as a running threat all the time. A haul of 97 points in seven matches at Twickenham for club and country this season does not suggest someone who cowers on the big occasion, either.
Power is the primary attribute that propelled these two brawny teams away from the chasing pack, and each possess flagship ball-carriers at the base of the scrum who can be destructive. Bully Vunipola is Saracens’ talismanic locomotive. Though Juan Smith and co. subdued him affectively, he still beat eight Toulon tacklers from 19 barreling runs – a staggering statistic. If Northampton do not stop Vunipola at source, they will endure a long, grim afternoon.
Back in September, Sam Dickinson marauded out of the blocks and dragged Saints to a superb start. Racking up over 180 carries in the competition thus far, the former Rotherham skipper is a relentless workhorse who belongs in the top tier of domestic rugby in this country. However, his influence has waned slightly during recent weeks. Toulon exposed some cracks in the destroy-and-enjoy defence marshaled by Brad Barritt. If he can rouse himself once more, Dickinson could too.
Even to ardent Northampton fans, Tom Bullough, Marc Finney and Chris Hart might not be household names. That needs to change. Saints’ conditioners are doing a wonderful job and, even as a gruelling campaign enters a cramp-inducing home straight, they are making a difference.
Tom Wood and Samu Manoa still look lively in the loose during the fourth quarter of energy-sapping encounters. Their set-piece gets stronger too. You can look beyond the last fortnight for proof. When the finalists last met in April at Allianz, the hosts led 28-10 with eight minutes remaining. Tries from Luther Burrell and George North left them hanging on at the end.
That is not to say Saracens are sluggish at all. As the well-worn “wolf-pack” moniker suggests, Borthwick’s charges are experts at sensing weakness and clasping onto the jugular. Clermont and Harlequins, who shipped 20 second-half points on May 17, will testify as much. There is every chance of this Premiership season being up for grabs with seconds on the clock.
Undoubtedly direct and abrasive, these sides do have their detractors. But to call them mechanical and unimaginative would be one-eyed. A combined total of 145 tries cannot have been manufactured by bludgeon alone. Northampton’s clever lineout, monitored by Courtney Lawes, is an abundant source of five-pointers, but Samoan scrum-half Khan Fotuali’i and full-back Ben Foden are unconventional, ambitious attackers.
For Saracens, that role is performed by outstanding South African hooker Schalk Brits, who could easily occupy a spot in the midfield such are his outrageous talents. Alex Goode is intelligent on the counter as well, and has been responsible for many of the 19 scores plundered by Chris Ashton and David Strettle. McCall has encouraged freedom and a fast-paced off-loading style. It stalled on Saturday before Europe could be conquered. We will soon find out if it is good enough to take the Premiership.